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KDE 4.2: The Wow Factor is Returning

A Major Release With Significant Improvements

  • February 2, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

Linus Torvalds may have switched too soon from the KDE 4 desktop because of usability problems. Less than a week after he made his off-hand comments, KDE 4.2 has been released, adding many of the customization settings that Torvalds and others complained were lacking in the KDE 4 series.

Customization isn't the whole story in KDE 4.2, of course. Developers may appreciate the new support for writing desktop widgets in Ruby and Python. Average users can find all sorts of enhancements in individual applications, from the ability to open tabs in the Dolphin file-manager to the ability to use Vi keybindings in the Kate editor, and the addition of PowerDevil for power management, especially on laptops.

All users, too, can appreciate the wealth of new applets, such as the Blue Marble Globe or RRSNow. There is even Bball, a red bouncing ball for the desktop that fulfills the apparent obligation for GNU/Linux desktops to have at least one useless widget.

But even these changes -- which easily run into the hundreds, if not thousands -- are usually aimed at letting users work in their own way. And nowhere is this tendency more obvious than in the general desktop options. Although usability began to creep back in with the 4.1 release last summer, with 4.2, concern with usability has become the dominant theme, with new configuration options to FolderView, Krunner, and the various sections of the panel.

KDE 4.2 will likely take some time to trickle down to the stable repositories of many distributions. Meanwhile, you compile it from source, or preview it using the KDE4 Live CD from openSUSE. The first packages, often still in the experimental stage, are also available for Debian, Kubuntu, SUSE, and Magic Linux. Other distributions should follow shortly.

FolderView reaches maturity

The quickest place to see KDE's regained usability is on the desktop. Many users have been puzzled by the introduction of FolderView, worrying that the joke that it was to remove icons from the desktop was actually true. And, in earlier KDE 4 releases, the point of FolderView seems to have been lost on many users. This was true even though its floating window of icons is actually far more versatile and easily changed than traditional icons.

Now, with version 4.2, KDE makes more room for individual preference. If you choose, you can have a traditional desktop with icons by right-clicking on the desktop, then selecting Appearance Settings from the context menu and setting the Desktop Activity Type to FolderView. The result is a transparent FolderView that covers the entire screen except for the panel. If you choose, you still have a floating FolderView, or else maintain several sets of icons for different tasks, choosing between them in Appearance Settings.

Just as important, 4.2 adds increased options for each FolderView. While in earlier KDE 4 releases you could only choose the folder to display and apply filters to set the type of files shown, in 4.2 you can set icon size and arrangement, as well as the preview and text options for each individual FolderView.

Filters, too, are enhanced, with a dialog that allows you to pick file types without having to remember what different extensions mean. With this flexibility and added options, FolderView comes into its own for the first time.

KRunner becomes a desktop command center

KRunner has always been one of the more deceptive features in KDE 4. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than an applet that runs a single command, and then closes -- something moderately useful, but hardly earth shattering, especially if you were a user who shunned the terminal.

However, even in earlier versions of KDE 4, this appearance was deceptive. While you could use KRunner only for entering commands, you could also use it for desktop searches, switching virtual desktops, converting from one measurement unit to another, and viewing or killing active processes owned by the current account.

For those in the know, these features were enough to keep KRunner constantly ready on the desktop. However, in 4.2, KRunner adds a host of new tools. Now, you can use KRunner to find and open individual sessions of Kate, Konqueror, and Konsole, to access power management tools, spell check documents, find shortcuts in Konqueror, and search your browsing history.

You also have the choice of a command or task-oriented interface. The command interface is the one used in earlier KDE 4 releases, and is best suited to experts with some understanding of their operating systems. However, the task-oriented interface allows you to start typing and choose a completion either to find a specific application or to do the task you have entered. Quietly, without much attention, KRunner has evolved into an alternative to the default menu that is more efficient and easier to use, and that claims a smaller footprint on the desktop.

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